About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Art of Film: Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Mirror" (1975)


     “The cinema is only a hundred years old,” stated Francis Ford Coppola, “and there are [already] so many great masterpieces.”  Narrative filmmaking is a combination of every art prior to the invention of the motion picture.  Everything from drawing and painting to writing and fashion play a pivotal role in filmmaking as they established the approach that filmmakers apply to successfully capture and present their work.  One of the greatest artists in the history of cinema is the late Soviet-Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky.  His films defied traditional cinematic conventions by acknowledging the artistic nature of film.  Astounding in scale and remarkable in form, the films of Tarkovsky are a masterful example of an artist who observed the world around him.  Tarkovsky was praised internationally for the poetic nature of his films, but it was Tarkovsky’s most poetic film, The Mirror (1975), which would be heavily scrutinized by the Soviet Union and ultimately banned from a wide release.  Though the film was banned, The Mirror reflects the life of Andrei Tarkovsky, the reality of life in the Soviet Union, and is a key example of a work that exhibits the tenants of modern cinema.
Released exclusively in Russia during March of 1975, Andrei Tarkovsky’s fourth feature film The Mirror was banned by the Soviet Union from premiering at Cannes due to the highly expressive nature of the film.  In a non-linear presentation, The Mirror seems at first to be portraying the memories and visions of the narrator as he lays on his deathbed, but it quickly becomes clear that the film is pushing deeper.  Alternating between black and white, color, and sepia tinted film; apparitions of various natures are portrayed on the screen.  Vintage newsreel footage of Soviet soldiers marching through Lake Sivash and victoriously parading the streets of Berlin begin to separate the narrative scenes making the scope and message of the film only more perplexing (Tarkovsky 130).  The camera drifts through time and various locations revealing the every-day juxtaposed against the unexplainable.  Is it the Holy Spirit or merely entropy that moves the events on the screen?
Emotive cinematography had been previously present in many European films, most notably perfected following Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).  Using the cinematography as an extension to the narrative unfolding on the screen drastically altered the way that emotion could be conveyed in cinema.  Whether it was the tracking shot on the beach at the end of François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows, or the highly geographic gaze of the camera in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960); a highly personal feeling of alienation and isolation is successfully being conveyed.  Heavily influenced by the rise of modern existential writings by the likes of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the camera became a weapon for conveying the indescribable in human life and a vessel for projecting emotion.  The rise of the existential also allowed for the more painterly aspects in filmmaking to shine.  Framing shots and composing camera movements for aesthetic purposes (rather than the traditional functional purposes) enabled filmmaking to be interpreted more clearly as a work of art.  Tarkovsky brought camera artistry to the forefront of The Mirror (and his entire filmmaking career) as it relied upon strong imagery to compensate for the narrative’s often indiscernible qualities.  
Within the film, Tarkovsky features one of his regular motifs which presents an art history book being perused.  The child turning the pages of the book stops on the image of 
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Self-Portrait” and progresses through many of his other works.  The mundane act of looking at art seems most appropriate in Tarkovsky’s most artistically directed film, and it almost feels as if Tarkovsky is asking for The Mirror to be viewed as a substantial work of art by comparing his own work to that of the Renaissance master.  Artistically, Tarkovsky’s fourth film presents the world as though it were a painting.  Constantly revealing hints of realism, The Mirror expresses artistic liberties in both technical and visual forms that engage and invite the viewer to interpret the content of the film.  Even as The Mirror cuts from black and white to color and then seamlessly transitions into slow motion, the viewer accepts what is being presented because of the atmosphere that the cinematography conveys within the context of the film. 
Keeping the film grounded, through a spellbinding voice-over, is the recited poetry of Arseny Tarkovsky (Andrei Tarkovsky’s father).  Arseny’s poetry establishes a tone that allows for viewers to interpret the enigmatic imagery before them while enhancing the literary qualities of the film.  The impact of fictional works of literature upon film is essentially the difference between narrative filmmaking existing or being a short-lived gimmick that would have ended in 1895.  Two years prior to The Mirror’s completion, Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut film Badlands was released.  Featuring a William Faulkner stylized voice-over delivered by Sissy Spacek, Badlands seems to live in multiple realms of artistry.  Visually the film is just as poetic as the three previous films released by Tarkovsky, but Badlands is uniquely Terrence Malick’s as it depicts childlike innocence in the American south.  Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness - entitled Apocalypse Now (1979) - uses voice-over to accentuate the atmosphere of warfare, justify mirage-like imagery, and elevate the film to a literary standard.
Within Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, the role of literature in Soviet Russian society is challenged.  The character Natalia (Margarita Terekhova) claims to be in love with a writer named “Dostoyevsky”.  In response to Natalia revealing her affections for this writer, the narrator replies, “he has no talent, doesn’t write a thing.”  In that moment of dialogue, the narrator has transitioned from being Andrei Tarkovsky and is briefly the voice of the USSR.  As revealed in Tarkovsky’s book on film theory, Sculpting In Time, Dostoyevsky was a light in the dark for Russian artists during the reign of communism. “But art must transcend as well as observe; its role is to bring spiritual vision to bear on reality: as did Dostoyevsky, the first to have given inspired utterance to the incipient disease of the age (Tarkovsky 49),” wrote Tarkovsky.  Rhetoric of that nature within a film like The Mirror was all that was needed to effectively ban a masterwork of its caliber.
In the Soviet Union, the tenants of socialist realism were still being closely observed, so the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (specifically The Mirror) were a far cry from the standard.  Capturing the life of the people as realistically as possible without artistic embellishment was the goal of socialist realism, but Tarkovsky’s world view was drastically different from that of the nation he lived in (Britanica).  With a strong history of Russian cinema heroes like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, Tarkovsky brought into his films elements that neither artists acknowledged within their respective works.  Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is a film about life and faith rather than a film solely about life in the Soviet Union.  Discussing the inevitable death of an ill man (the narrator) through various actual stories from Andrei Tarkovsky’s childhood, it would be difficult for a film of this topic to avoid pondering upon the afterlife.  Had Tarkovsky abided by the rules of socialist realism, The Mirror would be a traditional narrative film that would be more cinéma verité than visually poetic; ridding the film of all of its unique qualities.  Dziga Vertov captured the Soviet world around him within his most notable documentary The Man With The Movie Camera (1929), and Sergei Eisenstein established standards for how films are edited and made, but neither artist expressed visionary poetry that defied regulation.  Vertov and Eisenstein were film pioneers - and artists of structure - who would enable every filmmaker beyond their work to elaborate upon the art and development of film, but successfully expanding upon the art-form was near impossible with socialist realism enforced.
Inspired by his older contemporaries, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, it becomes clear how The Mirror came to be.  Tarkovsky, though younger than Bergman and Bresson, earned both of their respect and through Bergman he found one of his greatest international supporters:
My discovery of Tarkovsky's first film was like a miracle.  I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how.  Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.  (Bergman 73)
With Tarkovsky’s full potential being limited by the Soviet Union, particularly in comparison to Sweden’s Bergman, The Mirror not only discusses the oppression of great artists and thinkers, but it also dwells upon Tarkovsky’s own status as an oppressed Russian.  Though the narrator’s face is never seen, his bedridden body (from the chest down) is seen near the conclusion of the film.  The actor who physically played the dying narrator was the director Andrei Tarkovsky himself.  Tarkovsky depicts his inevitable death in a similar fashion to the 1651 memento mori painting “Vanitas” by David Bailly.  Through Tarkovsky’s memories, a portrait is painted of the boy he once was, and through his narration is a depiction of the man he is now.  His loved ones surround the narrator at his deathbed, but everything in the world around him will progress and move on after his impending death.
Though the scope of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is seemingly immeasurable, the level of artistry exhibited within the film is undeniable.  Adapting the progress in film from the past eighty years, Tarkovsky managed to create his own masterpiece while under the ever-watchful eye of his homeland.  Declaring film as art, The Mirror is a bold work which exudes the principles of classical artistry while reinterpreting the boundaries of narrative filmmaking.  Defying the boundaries and regulations placed before all artists by the Soviet Union, The Mirror is a film that acknowledges the existence of the USSR but represents this knowledge as a piece of a highly personal narrative.  The Mirror relies upon active interpretation and self-evaluation, and it is with the film’s mystique that Tarkovsky’s work is never irrelevant and that The Mirror lives on.


Works Cited
Bergman, Ingmar. The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography. Viking, 1988. Print
“Socialist Realism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia 
Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 07 Mar. 2012. www.britannica.com
Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting In Time. Berlin: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1986. Print.

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